Lily Parrott is a new co-editor of the Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter. She is also an intern with the Fahamu Refugee Programme and is set to begin an MSc in Migration, Mobility & Development at SOAS in 2012.
In our last newsletter we had a special focus on the state of refugees in Israel. In the past two months, much more has happened in the region, so here is a brief update on what has taken place.
Far from being stopped, the process of deporting African refugees from Israel has gained momentum. On the 17 June, a plane carrying 123 South Sudanese took off for Juba despite the anger and fear of deportees. South Sudan is still an extremely unstable country and Israel has been internationally criticised, as some consider this action to be violating the principle of non-refoulement. UNHCR has openly declared that the repatriation taking place does not meet their standards of voluntary return (McClenaghan, 2012). This was the first flight to depart in what has been named ‘Operation Going Home’, which involves a plan to deport all South Sudanese currently in Israel (Hartman, 2012). However, it was recently revealed in a report by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism that Sudanese citizens are being issued South Sudanese documents in order to deport them. There have already been an estimated 100 cases of this occurring (Sudan Tribute, 2012). Because Israel has no repatriation agreement with Sudan, it is unable to deport people to Khartoum. Already some of those ‘repatriated’ to South Sudan have been returned to Israel from South Sudan, as their passports show they are Sudanese (McClenaghan, 2012). Those facing deportation are being told that if they do not voluntarily repatriate, they will face imprisonment, thereby creating a dilemma for the thousands of Sudanese in Israel.
However, South Sudanese are not the only targets, all Africans are facing deportation as a result of ‘Operation Clean Up’ regardless of the legality of their status. Israeli authorities are supporting the legitimacy of this decision by blaming African migrants for a string of rapes and muggings. In the past several weeks, at least 50 Nigerians have been deported. Yet it is not only Nigerians and Sudanese who have been targeted; the new legislation has actively encouraged xenophobia and racially-motivated attacks are happening frequently in Tel Aviv and beyond (Sherwood, 2012; Aljazeera; Williams, 2012). The level of fear amongst migrants has grown so high that even ambassadors fear moving about, especially following the arrest of the wife of a Ghanaian ambassador while out shopping in Tel Aviv (Ohams, 2012). Because of these numerous, indiscriminate attacks committed against Africans, ambassadors from Angola, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria were prompted to hold a meeting in Jerusalem focusing on the issue.
The number of people crossing the border from Egypt has decreased significantly within the past months: from up to 2,295 per month previously to only 248 in July (Attalah, 2012). This decrease has been partially attributed to the now almost complete wall being built between the Sinai and Naqab deserts along the Egyptian-Palestinian border. The wall, costing an estimated 300 million USD and and stretching along 240km of the border, from Eilat to Kerem Shalom in Southern Gaza, is almost complete and authorities want it to be finished no later than 31 October, this year (Egypt Independent, 2012).
More sinisterly, a letter from an Israeli soldier revealed that the Israeli military have been preemptively arresting African ‘infiltrators’ attempting to cross into Israel through the Sinai while still on Egyptian soil. Sometimes they were tricked into believing they had reached Israel and welcomed with food, water and shelter before being loaded into Egyptian trucks and removed. This is in violation of international law and continues Israel’s practice of ‘hot’ or ‘coordinated’ returns policy, under which soldiers can return ‘infiltrators’ to a neighbouring country within 24 hours of their arrival, as long as they have not gone more than 50km from the border.
Ketsiot prison for migrants and asylum seekers in the Negev desert is being expanded so that it can house up to 5,400 people (Israeli Government Decision on Infiltrators). The majority of people being held in the prison are Eritrean, who, the Interior Minister claims ‘are not refugees’, but admits that they cannot be deported because this move would put their lives at risk (Berman, 2012). Further, plans are underway for the construction of a new detention centre for undocumented migrants crossing the Egyptian border. It will be able to house at least 5,000 people until they are able to either be repatriated or moved to a third country (Israeli Government Decision on Infiltrators). It said that it will be the largest detention centre in the world.
And aptly so, as detention facilities are rapidly filling as a result of the Prevention of Infiltration Law, introduced in January, which allows the detention of immigrants without legal status for an unlimited period of time if they come from an ‘enemy’ country, or up to three years otherwise. Minors are detained in prison-like conditions along with their families. Further, the law draws no distinction between asylum seekers, economic migrants, and ‘infiltrators’ with the intention of harming Israel’s security. The law also criminalises the provision of help to ‘infiltrators’ with a sentence of up to five years. Further, the Knesset has passed an initial reading of a bill that would increase the punishment of people employing, harbouring or assisting illegal migrants in any way. If the bill passes, the punishment for any of these acts could be up to five years imprisonment or a fine up to 5 million NIS. Under another proposed bill, migrants that have been denied residency permits in Israel could be deported before they have time to file an appeal. All of this legislation aims to discourage migrants in all ways from attempting to come to Israel (Tsurkov, 2012).
It is estimated that Africans remit NIS 500 million home each year. The government has begun taking steps to reduce such an economic incentive for migrants to come to Israel. Earlier this summer, an amendment was added to an existing bill prohibiting migrants from transferring funds abroad (Haaretz, 2012). Punishment for this is now up to six months imprisonment or a fine of NIS 29,200. Further, those who employ migrants will have to pay a ‘deposit’ of NIS 700 per month and also a levy of up to 20% of the cost of employing the person. This will greatly increase the cost of employing ‘infiltrators’ as opposed to Israeli workers and, the government hopes, discourage employers from doing so.
However, not all news has been bad news, for in Eilat, the court ruled on 26 August 2012 that it is not legal to send children of asylum seekers to separate schools from Israeli children. This had been the standard practice in Eilat until the decision was challenged. The practice of segregating children by their status and race was harshly criticised and called discriminatory and illegal. In response to this ruling, local parents have threatened to hold a strike in the city’s schools if the decision is not reversed (Ohayon, 2012).
Israeli authorities have made their attitudes towards African migrants very clear, for as Interior Minister Eli Yishai put it, if he ‘has to chose between the interests of Israel and the interests of the Sudanese, I will choose Israel’ (Hartman, 2012). And he has promised to wage his war ‘until not one infiltrator remains’ (Makhanya, 2012).
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